Text: Deneb R. Batucan
Images: Allan Defensor
ON THE boat, there are no individuals. Everyone is part of one unit. To paddle is life. To paddle is survival. To paddle is to win the race of life. And there are no shortcuts here—just pure human strength, adrenaline and whole lot of gusto.
The sport of dragon boat racing is fast-paced and heart-pounding, but that doesn’t stop any one from this strong team hailing from the Queen City of the South. No, there’s no stopping them from conquering the sport, no matter who or what goes against them — even themselves.
The PADS (Philippine Accessible Disability Services Inc.) Adaptive Dragon Boat Racing Team is a team of 28 strong men and women who have wowed so many people by their passion and abilities for the sport. Composed of people with various disabilities (deaf, blind, amputees and polio survivors), they have proven that with the right tools and opportunities, anyone can do anything they set their mind to.
John Paul “JP” Ecarma Maunes, the CEO and co-founder of the PADS organization, started the dragon boat team last year. PADS is a Cebu-based organization geared towards making a disability-inclusive Philippines through various platforms, which includes the adaptive sports program.
To him, sports has always been the best vehicle in injecting their advocacy for PWDs. And in the past six months since the inception of the dragon boat team, there has been so much progress in each of the members.
“They have gained a lot of health benefits plus the life skills that they have developed through the training. Discipline, teamwork, unity and also social skills. Plus also their ability to race against other paddlers with no disability,” JP said.
Through inviting various PWD federations in Cebu, as well as social media, JP has rounded up 28 members of the PADS dragon boat team as of today. Many of the members have been looking for a platform or opportunity to participate in sports, but most of their families and loved ones are weary to let them.
“People see them as weak, frail. For me, I don’t believe in that particular mentality. When you have a person and you provide them the opportunity and all the mechanisms to participate, I think they can compete and they can also appear alongside other people in sports,” JP said. “We don’t treat them as special here. We treat them like any other person but with the assumption that they can perform as long as we provide them with the opportunity and all the support that they need.”
Being in the team is more than learning the sport. It’s also given the members a head start at life. Today, four of the paddlers are now hired at various companies, while three of them will be having their job interviews soon. PADS is helping them in their careers and education—helping them to be a holistic human being.
“It doesn’t end at paddling. It’s the first step into developing them into independent, functioning citizens. We’re injecting into them the tools that they need to be independently integrated into the community,” JP said. “If they can do dragon boat, they can for sure work for any company. The life skills they learned through the sport, they can apply in their workplace or at school.
Teamwork and focus
Many the members have found improvement in themselves, not only physically but emotionally as well. Brylle Samgel Arombo, one of the youngest members of the team, found the PADS dragon boat team on Facebook last year. It was six months since the vehicular accident that caused him to lose his right leg from the knee down.
“I was inspired because the paddlers were. Some were amputees like me,” Brylle said in Cebuano. “They invited me to come here, and since I really wanted to join, I went even if it’s far, as I live in Argao. And this is like rehabilitation pud of my being an amputee.”
Initially, Brylle thought the sport was easy since he thought all that entailed was paddling. “But it’s not easy. You need a lot of teamwork and a focused mindset.”
Being in the team helped Brylle in accepting life’s turns. The encouragement of the team made him more confident in his skin and has helped him accept himself. “In the outside world, so many would discriminate against you for being an amputee, disabled na. But actually, all is fair. What others can do, we’re capable of as well,” he said. “Now, I’m no longer embarrassed to walk with crutches in public places because I only have one leg. I’m confident with myself because I’ve accepted who I am.”
Marvelous Bjorda is the only blind member of the dragon boat team. Being visually impaired, Marvelous had a hard time adjusting to the sport at first, even breaking a few paddles. But his willingness to learn and positive attitude made him push himself to be better.
“Dragon boat is hard, but it’s habit-forming. I want to keep on coming back. The body longs for dragon boating,” said Marvelous, whose biggest weakness is synchronization, but that never stops him. It pushes him to improve, and every training day, he just keeps on getting better and better. “I’ve learned to maintain speed, then proper counting. I myself would count so I won’t be out of sync. Also, you need to feel the water,” he said.
When Vern Faustrilla, a polio survivor, first rode on the dragon boat, he never thought the sport would be as tough as it was. But he loved it. “What makes this intense is the competition. Our opponents aren’t like us. It’s very challenging,” he said.
Vern is beyond grateful to have found a new family in dragon boat. It made him a better person. “When I wasn’t doing dragon boat, I stopped working. When I did, I just stayed in the house, selling goods. I’d just sit, look a the cell phone, I got lazy. When I joined, my lifestyle changed,” he said. My laziness disappeared. And I left my vices. Also, I’m no longer shy. I now have self-confidence.”
Today, the PADS Adaptive Dragon Boat Racing Team is preparing for competitions in the upcoming months, including one in happening in Boracay on April 20-22 as well as one in Hong Kong, organized by the Hong Kong International Federation, where they will be representing the Philippines against eight other PWD teams from other countries. It’s such an exciting time for the whole team.
“We’re here for two things: one, is to expose the paddlers with disabilities and also for them to provide awareness to the people surrounding them and the sporting community, and two, we’re here to compete and conquer the sport so we want to be competitive as any other team and exceed expectations,” JP said.
PADS is in partnership with the Sports Performance and Rehabilitation (SPR) in preparing their dragon boat athletes with fitness and core training. At Citigym, they do their individual styles of training, which are made to fit in each body type. SPR physical therapist Lyza Venice said that before they started training, they had to undergo individual functional assessment to determine each member’s capacity in exercising.
The land training is a lot like circuit training, except they had to modify it to fit each member’s disability so to hit the target muscles. “Our conditioning is more on strength for muscle endurance and then cardio endurance. We also do mobility exercises, especially for the hips, core and back,” Lyza said.
The SPR team also taught them basic hip mobility and stretching exercises that each athlete could do by themselves.
Before going to sea, the team practices at the pool to get the feel of the paddle wading through water. This is also endurance training, applying all the muscles that they trained at the gym and working it out.
This is the real deal. At least a month before a competition, the team assembles at the Cebu Yacht Club, where they rent out a dragon boat for training, at 4:30 a.m. from Monday to Friday. At the start, they do stretching and warm-ups before going into the water. They train for about an hour in the water.
To learn more about the PADS Adaptive Dragon Boat Racing Team, check out:
Follow them on Facebook: facebook.com/AdaptiveDragonBoat RacingPH.
Locale: Cebu Yacht Club